digital assistant

Is Big Brother Listening | Digital Assistants – Pros, Cons and Privacy

A Digital Assistant for Everyone

An interesting trend in the marketing world has come from the influx of personal digital assistants such as Siri by Apple, the Amazon Echo, the Google Assistant (mobile phone) and Google Home (in home device). These devices give us the opportunity to search for information, play games, read books and control smart devices in our homes with our voices. Simply ask a question or tell the device what you want it to do and it will do it. Easy!

For an idea of how prevalent these devices are becoming, Amazon reports having sold millions of the Echo Dot this holiday season. They further state that the Dot was “the best-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon.” That is a remarkable statement given the number of sales that Amazon makes each season.

The Upside of Digital Assistants

These devices are truly remarkable in their capabilities. With a little “training” anyone can use one of these to find information and make their lives easier, to boot. My mother, who has low vision, uses her Echo Dot to find out the news, weather and other information, but it doesn’t stop there. She can also ask the device to turn off some of her lights and set the thermostat with the later being a difficult task for someone who has poor vision. This device has the potential to give her some more independence as she gets older.

As the list of “skills” for the devices grows, there is no telling what they will be able to do in the not so distant future.

The Downside of Digital Assistants

The biggest drawbacks (to me) of these devices stem from the same things that make them great.

First, the device is always listening. While this seems like a no-brainer, since if the device is not listening, it cannot hear you ask questions or give it commands, I worry that it is listening a little too closely. There have been several reports of Google, Apple and Amazon offering the users of these devices online advertisements based upon private discussions in their home. There have also been reports of the Facebook app doing this, as well. True or not, it is a bit scary.

I am okay with them offering me an ad for Crest toothpaste, if I have done a search for toothpaste. This just helps me find the most relevant information. However, when I see this same ad for Crest and I have only talked about how much I like Colgate to my best friend, while seated in my own living room, then I get a bit nervous.

Second, the devices and corresponding apps track and store all of your requests and queries. So, another feature that has a check in both the Plus and Minus columns, is the tracking feature. For instance, the Echo Dot uses the Alexa app. This app will show me pretty much all of my mother’s queries, etc. This is good in case she forgets something and wants to see it again. But this smacks a little bit of the Owellian Dystopia presented in the book 1984. Do we really want Big Brother watching us that closely?

Where Do You Stand?

While it is obvious there are many great features to the digital assistant devices, I have some serious reservations with their privacy and security protocols. What is your opinion? Do you think the lack of privacy is worth the convenience gained or do you feel there needs to be some more discussion on the privacy standards used by these companies?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

 

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